The shehnai at the arati

Arunabha Deb | Updated on August 22, 2014

Varanasi’s hero: Ustad Bismillah Khan best embodied the ideas of secularism. - Rajeev Bhatt

Awards in vain: Ustad Bismillah Khan might have been awarded the Bharat Ratna in 2001, but his legacy remains forgotten. - Shanker Chakravarty

It is best if Hindustani musicians continue to define their identities through their music alone

When Ustad Bismillah Khan’s son Zamin Hussain refused to be a proposer for Narendra Modi’s nomination from Varanasi, I felt his decision was a fitting tribute to his late father. But now that Hussain and other family members have played at Rahul Gandhi’s roadshow in Varanasi, their previous motives seem less clear. Whether it is Modi or Gandhi, it is obvious why anyone with any political stake in Varanasi would want to associate with the late maestro’s family. Bismillah was synonymous with his beloved Benaras (“ Bana banaya ras, Banaras,” he used to say) and few other cultural icons embodied the idea of secularism as demonstrably as he did.

For a political party — especially in the context of these elections — getting his family on board means a sprinkling of secular dust, and it is the kind of cheap tokenism that the maestro would surely have abhorred. The members of Khan’s family might cry themselves hoarse proclaiming that by playing at a roadshow they were not endorsing the Congress, but they did use the maestro’s portrait as a backdrop and they were asked to perform only because of their lineage. It is one of the great tragedies of Hindustani music that none of Khan’s family members (or disciples, for that matter) is an established shehnai player in his own right; nobody would ask them to join a roadshow for the quality of their music.

Most Hindustani musicians who have lived and flourished in Varanasi speak at length, and with pride, about how the city, and especially its musicians, always rose above religion. In an interview with Girija Devi about six years ago, she told me that members of her family kept mannats (a wish) on Muharram and how they fed chana and gur to the horses in the Muharram procession. But of all the ‘goosebump’ stories about religious harmony in Varanasi, nothing equals Bismillah regularly playing the shehnai during the arati at the Balaji temple. His uncle Ali Baksh and he also practised in the temple premises. It is ludicrous that this man’s family has now dragged his name into a political tussle. Politicians have reportedly made several visits to Khan’s grave at Lallapura recently. I am reminded of a quip made by Devi, “He received the Bharat Ratna, and you should see the state of his grave. There is only a little mound of mud, goats and dogs graze on it. Apparently, the government has sanctioned ₹30 lakh for his samadhi but I don’t think even ₹30 has been spent on it.”

With a few exceptions, religious identity has never been a concern for Hindustani musicians. The oral history of this music is replete with instances of tolerance. The Scindia kings of Gwalior were passionate patrons of Hindustani music and the maestros who were the fountainheads of the Gwalior gharana — Ustad Nathan Pir Bakhsh, Ustad Haddu Khan, Ustad Hassu Khan and Ustad Nathu Khan — were all part of the Scindia court. Apart from being khayal singers, Haddu, Hassu and Nathu Khan learnt shlokas and arya abhangs of the Marathi poet Moropant from Vishnu Pandit and sang them with the king in the temple. The Dagar family has been the primary custodian of dhrupad in this country and though Muslims, their knowledge of Sanskrit was profound. Also, almost all the dhrupad compositions they sang contained lyrics centred on Hindu themes and motifs. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan created several compositions invoking Shiva, and his arguably most popular ‘request piece’ at concerts was Hari om tat sat. Tabla maestro Ustad Amir Hussain Khan often played at the Ramkrishna Mission in Bombay on Kali puja.

Ustad Vilayat Khan’s photograph of him biting into a sweet (presumably prasad) before a Saraswati idol is a telling image. Speaking of photographs, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan comes to mind. His father, Baba Allauddin Khan, was a practising Muslim and yet was a devotee at the Saradha temple at Maihar in Madhya Pradesh. Ali Akbar had an entire wall dedicated to pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. On this wall hung a strategically placed curtain, which the maestro would draw every evening before consuming his daily quota of a litre of Chivas. He did not want to ‘anger’ the gods.

The identities of Hindustani musicians have been determined by lineage of learning (by guru) rather than lineage of birth. They have been fiercely protective (and competitive and petty) about their gharanas, possessive about their bandishes, but hardly ever distinguished between fellow artistes or disciples on the basis of religion.

Hindustani musicians wanted to assert who they were and where they came from through inherited singing styles and compositions. That is why it surprises nobody that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, in his very first LP, sang unforgettable versions of Karim naam tero and Mohammadsha rangile in Miyanki Malhar. And perhaps that is why Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, who was quite a zealous Hindu and sprinkled Ganga jal on the dais before a recital, sang Allah jaane maula jaane in Todi. When it came to the music itself — the bandishes, the vistaar, the raga roop — nobody, not even Omkarnath, bothered about religious connotations.

It is best that Hindustani musicians continue to define their identities through their music alone. Staying clear of the never-ending religious-secular saga of Indian politics will help. As many Hindustani musicians say, their chosen religion is music; their god resides in the komal gandhar of Darbari.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer >shubhodeb@hotmail. com

Published on May 16, 2014

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